Although I'm a fan of Jodi Picoult's writing, I hesitated to read Nineteen Minutes for a while, because it seemed a bit too close to home in the aftermath of the Virginia Tech shootings. But I always intended to read it, and when I ran across it on my library's shelf the other day, I brought it home. And once I started, I couldn't put it down until I was finished. I don't think that Nineteen Minutes is for everyone, because of the disturbing subject matter (a dissection of a high-school shooting incident, before, during, and after). But I think that it's Jodi Picoult's best work, even better than my previous favorite, My Sister's Keeper.
Picoult demonstrates her mastery of three things in this book: incorporating shifting points of view, maintaining suspense, and tackling moral shades of gray. Nineteen Minutes, although a third person narrative, alternates between the viewpoints of the various people affected by the school shooting, from the shooter to his parents and his former best friend to the detective, lawyer, and judge involved with the case. Each person's viewpoint is distinct and tight as a drum (there's no question of whose viewpoint it is, no incidents of a person knowing something that they shouldn't).
Picoult uses the different viewpoints to maintain suspense, no mean feat in a book which we already know is about a school shooting with fatalities. We know early on who the shooter is. But there's suspense about other things, big and small. Why did he do it? Why did he leave certain people alive, and target other? Did he plan everything out in advance? What happened to his older brother? What secret is the judge's daughter hiding? What happened to their friendship?
It's also through these distinctive viewpoints that Picoult explores the shades of gray in something that, on the surface, appears to be a black and white issue. She takes us into the broken heart of the shooter's mother, who can't understand how she could have raised someone who would do this. She shows us the shooter as a sensitive and happy five year old, excited to start school. And she shows us the years of bullying and cruelty inflicted on the shooter by some of his eventual victims. Nineteen Minutes is a searing indictment of the quest for popularity, and the ways in which people who are insecure about their own place can harm others.
Picoult doesn't excuse the shooter for the harm that he's caused, but she does explain him a bit. And she makes it clear that, at least in this fictional case, the shooting could have been prevented, if any of a variety of people had interceded along the way. She did considerable research for this book, including talking with survivors of an actual school shooting. You can read the details on her web page, where you'll also find book discussion questions, and links to resources on school violence and prevention. This isn't some sensationalist book that's trying to take advantage of the notoriety of school shootings. Nineteen Minutes is an attempt to understand the complex set of factors that drive kids to violence, and in doing so, to provide keys for staving off violence in the future. But it's far from a message book -it's a compelling, richly detailed novel, populated with complex and realistically flawed characters. I highly recommend Nineteen Minutes. And although it's published as adult fiction, I think that it would make an excellent discussion book for parents or teachers and teens.
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.